Dogs and fireworks – how to resolve anxiety during firework season
Fireworks season has begun. And that means one thing for pet owners – anxiety, shaking and fear for our beloved dogs and cats.
From mid October to mid November, dog and cat owners are often frustrated by the random outbreak of fireworks – not just on halloween night or the 5th of November, but every night for several weeks either side.
Add the strangeness of Halloween, and people in masks etc, and it’s a stressful period for even the most laid back pet. Helping your pet during this period is vital to their wellbeing.
A 2010 survey found that 46% of pets (both cats and dogs) were afraid of fireworks, and as pet owners we dread the fear, the shaking and the anxiety our pets go through during this time every year.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for helping your dog to resolve their anxiety caused by fireworks, but we have put together a list of a number of things you can to help, as well as a few things you definitely should not do.
Mark + Chappell tips for calmer pets during the fireworks
1. Provide a ‘safe space’
From early October, provide a ‘safe space’ for your pet. Dogs appreciate a cardboard box or a crate with a towel in it and cats often like laundry baskets (as any cat owner can confirm!).
Each evening put some treats or a favourite toy in their ‘safe space’ so your pet gets used to going in there. It helps to put an item of your unwashed clothing in the space such as a worn t-shirt. The smell of your presence will comfort your pet.
2. Modify their walk time
Exposing your dog to more of the loud noises that scare them while they are in an uncontrolled environment can be counter productive, particularly if they are out during times that are prime for fireworks.
So from early October, start bringing your dog’s walk time earlier by a few minutes each day. That way they are getting their outside time earlier in the day, before the fireworks start. Once you get home, draw the curtains and close all windows and doors to try and insulate their environment from the sounds of fireworks.
3. Insulate their environment
Try to insulate your pet’s environment from the sound of fireworks going off outside. This means keeping you pets in the house as much as possible. It also means keeping doors and windows closed and curtains pulled whenever possible.
This should be easier and easier to do considering the dropping temperatures and earlier sunsets that October brings.
The closer to the center of the house your pet can be, the more insulated from the loud booms they are going to be. Playing soothing music, white noise, or the radio can also help to muffle the sounds of fireworks from outside the house.
4. Desensitise them gradually in a controlled way
We have mentioned how exposure to the noise of fireworks in an uncontrolled environment can be counter productive. However, you might consider buying a fireworks CD which you can play whilst feeding your dog and cat or playing with them.
This way you can control their exposure and reward them in a way that helps them to associate the noises with positivity and rewards.
Start with the volume low and increase it gradually over a number of days to help desensitise your pet to the fireworks sounds. You can get them to do tricks for rewards and treats while playing the sounds and make a positive fuss to help them to build up the positive association.
Please, if your pet has a very negative reaction to the sounds at any volume, don’t force them to continue to listen but try another approach. Otherwise you will only compound their fear and anxiety of the fireworks noises and make them feel even more fearful.
5. Bring your cat indoors during the dark periods
Fireworks season is a particularly unsafe time for cats, many of whom are free to roam on their own accord during the day. If your cat is out and away from your home when the fireworks start, they may panic and find somewhere to hide for the night. This can leave them exposed to loud noises for the entire night.
So, from mid-October, start bringing your cat indoors while it is still light, and lock any cat-flaps you have, to ensure your cat will be safe indoors once the fireworks start.
6. Keep their water bowl full
When the fireworks start, make sure to keep checking on your pet’s water bowl. Stressed animals can get thirstier and pant more, so don’t leave them parched.
7. Let them find their own safe spaces
If your pets hide under the bed or behind the sofa during the fireworks, don’t stop them. They may come to you for comfort and if so, quietly and calmly offer it. But if they prefer to stick to a safe, dark space of their own choosing, let them.
Dogs and cats deal with anxiety in many ways, and preventing them from using the refuge they’ve picked can exacerbate these negative feelings.
8. Distract them with treats and positive reinforcement
It’s important not to reinforce your pets nervous and anxious behaviour, so giving them treats for simply being afraid is a bad idea. However, getting them engaged in a game or a task and rewarding them appropriately can be a great distraction from fear and anxiety.
Set aside a time as night sets in and the fireworks begin to engage your pet in activities like this so they can work for a reward and put the sounds to the back of the mind.
Not all pets will be willing to engage but something like a Kong toy can make them work for a treat over time and help distract them from the scary noises outside.
9. Keep your doors locked
If you have to open a door to the outside, make sure your dog or cat is securely shut in an inside room.
What Not To Do
1. Don’t just ignore their anxious behaviour
People often think the best thing they can do is ignore their pet’s anxious behaviour. However, pets, and dogs in particular, take great comfort in social support from their owners.
They will certainly take cues from you, so the calmer you can be, the calmer they’ll feel they can be. But, you should also find opportunities to reinforce positive behaviour and disrupt anxious thoughts they might be having.
2. Don’t scold or punish them
Don’t scold or punish them. It won’t benefit them in any way. It won’t reduce their anxiety or modify their behaviour other than when they are with you. They will simply pretend they are not terrified when you are there, to avoid the punishment they will get if they show how they are feeling.
3. Do not expose them under uncontrolled conditions
Bringing your dog to a fireworks display to desensitise them does not work. If you are going to try and desensitise them to the sounds, it has to be done slowly, at low volume in an environment that they can stay relaxed and confident, with plenty of positive reinforcement.
Pet Fireworks Anxiety: VetIQ Serene-UM
Vet IQ Serene-UM is a natural supplement that can be invaluable if you have a dog or cat struggling with anxiety during the fireworks season. It’s a completely natural dietary supplement that reduces stress without sedating your pet.
It’s particularly useful if you want to help your pet learn new behaviours that will be better for them, and you, during this stressful period of the year.
Above all, remember to remain calm yourself, even if your pet is hyperactive or stressed, as they will take their cues from you and if you become tense, their fear will grow.